What I believe- a short history
I am a late-blooming, outsider that has ‘emerged’ as a sculptor. All it has taken to get here is my whole life. I use home and place on Gabriola and its earth/seascape as my working identity. My media of choice is weathered wood as a form for sculpture. I am strongly attracted to wood and I love transforming it into something that has not only artistic power but spiritual density- morphing the mystery of it.
For many years now, I have experimented with techniques that freeze a snapshot of the ‘sacred decay’ of red cedar, yellow cedar, arbutus, yew, etc. This is very much a West Coast media and themed process. Growing up and living in the lush woods of the Pacific west coast, I developed many skills relating to wood. My primal material is something that has been given up by the earth and the sea, detritus, forgotten, decomposing and then seen/caught in the last moments of its beauty.
My desire is to divine and realize a form through my carving and sculpting. Only recently did I realize that I was working within some variety and historical context of mu gongshi- the wood counterpart of Chinese scholar’s rocks, gongshi.
With my background in writing and rock gardening, the deep connection to earth and poetry has never been far away. It has been a theme and meditation of sorts for decades now.
I believe that my many years of rock and boulder garden constructions (for alpine and xeric plants) that I designed and installed for landscaping clients, has given me a great springboard for my sculptural work.
I’ve always been involved with art but it is only in the last eight years that I clearly saw myself as an artist.
What I do is also very much in the realm of another artistic form, objet naturel trouvé. The journey and the process to find my materials is as much a part of the art as the thing itself.
Essentially it is beachcombing and woodscombing.
However, it is the transformation of this material that is so exciting to me. This kind of “wood” cannot be bought- it just happens- not just in the outside world but once it comes to my studios to dry, cure and transform.
As a carver/sculptor, I reject cloying representationalism. However, I assert the following irony for consideration: the power of abstraction is diminished unless one can infuse forms using subliminal or suggestive aspects of representation- eyes, mouths, snouts, arms, torsos, etc.- without engaging in the usual anthropomorphisms.
I hope that the somewhat abstract nature of my work doesn’t put people off rather that it stimulates and excites their imagination. The abstractions of natural forms- using natural forms- are not in the truest sense abstractions at all. They are the representational forms.
As the late Richard Rosenblum, a sculptor and the world’s leading collector of Chinese scholar’s rocks, famously remarked, “‘Chinese scholars rocks aren’t abstractions of anything. They don’t represent their formal qualities. They are their formal qualities.” (Art of the Natural World: Resonances of Wild Nature in Chinese Sculptural Art, Doran, MFA Publications, Boston, 2001).
When I read this book, I was amazed at how many things I had (through meditating, working on my pieces and writing over the years) figured out about what I was doing. It was an exhilarating feeling knowing where I stood in this under-represented sculptural practice. Particularly fascinating is Rosenblum's statement regarding what he calls an "identity piece" on p. 114- a "Scholar's Rock of sea-pocked rootwood." He refers to it as "Probably the most classical of all my identity pieces, in terms of Chinese natural world aesthetics, is a small, mounted rootwood. " He found it on the sandy shores of Costa Rica- just "a bit of driftwood". He further emphasizes, "that while the littleCosta Rican rootwood "rock" is stepping outside of the circle of Chinese tradition, it is still speaking to what is inside the circle. Through it, and other pieces like it, I am performing a creative action that is valid within the tradition because Chinese scholars and artists did just this sort of work. It is ironic that, in contrast, these identity pieces would not be acceptable as legitimate art within modern day Western art-historical parameters by which the tradition is defined." (p. 114)
Thus, my challenge as an artist doing this kind of work has been squarely defined by the late Master himself. I am the round peg trying to fit in the square hole of Western art and its commodification and overproduction. In the often gaudy non-narrative of post-Modernism, my work is a non-starter. My work represents to me at least, the final step in sculpture of meditative abstraction. Scholars Rocks are not everybody's cup of Darjeeling.
And, because they are intrinsically egoless, they will not usually be the topic of conversations at cocktail parties where real estate, and the usual array of talk dominates.
Understand that wood is considered a rock in the context of the Chinese literati's scholars rocks.
My fascination and development of techniques to work with teredo-pocked cedar is paramount in my mastery of the subject.
They are both natural history and art- cellular and formful.
In this sense then, my "modern" sculptors-as-heroes are: Henri Gaudier-Bzreska, Picasso, Boccioni, Brancussi, Giacometti, Hepworth, Moore, Nash, Deacon and Goldsworthy. All of these artists were working in an arc of the scholars rocks tradition as noted recently by Harvard scholar, Mowry.
Other elements that are worthy of discussion in my work are porosity, sacred decay and transformation. For example, I know when I have reached my goal working with a teredo shipworm-pocked cedar when I am burnishing it and it sounds like some obscure and ancient musical instrument pinging out a special sound, filling my heart with astonishment and love. I start singing along with that wood, that sculpture. This is sculpture with a singing soul- still alive!
Hopefully, the inherent narrative in my pieces will make people want to sing as well. Something amazing happens to wood over time when it begins to decompose and I believe that the porosity of wood is what allows it to tunefully and slowly breakdown. This is the sacred decay as it sings it way into another form with a little help from me.
The concept of sacred decay has been my guiding narrative, a very visceral yet ephemeral unified theory. Visceral in that I have had to deal with a whole host of technical issues dealing with wood and, in particular, wood that was in various stages of decay and on the precipice of outright rot.
I generally do not use machinery to work or finish except with larger and bulkier pieces. I do, however, utilize extensive knife and chisel work in my work not only to remove punky or rotten wood but also to probe for surprises and to shape the wood so that it conforms with the organic form or the inherent architecture of the piece.
I burnish my pieces with elk and deer horns. This creates the soft glistening that comes from the horns and the wood itself not some chemical finish.
I want people to see into the wood and not have to reach for their sun glasses. My finishes are usually beeswax, orange oil and walnut oil.
The treatment of the wood and this initial approach with the wood places it roughly within the Lu Ron method preferred by driftwood carvers.
Often I will burnish and finish a given piece several times. I also engage in ‘carving over’ (an on-going process that proceeds until the curing process is complete) until it is physically stable. This can take years.
Many of my pieces are meant to be touched, turned in the hands and looked at closely in many ways. This helps greatly to appreciate the piece.
For my bases and support arms, I also prefer them to also be weathered wood and other refugees of the ocean tides- parts of busted up docks, branches snapped off in storms, etc. I feel this makes the piece more integrated and unified. I also feel this makes the piece more humble and natural. Big, showy polished rock bases just doesn’t work for me.
Finally, I will continue to work on pieces- both small and large, private and public- in the hope that my approach will strike a chord with all those who exalt Nature and Art in a way that is not corny or clichéd.
Rather, it is my deepest desire and purpose as an artist that my art surprises and transforms people and appeals to their imagination. This is why I call my studio, Phantasma Sculptura.
The word phantasma was created by Aristotle to describe an image of the mind or mental image.
Aristotle's views about imagery (phantasmata) must be posited in relationship to his views about imagination (phantasia), which he defined as “(apart from any metaphorical sense of the word) the process by which we say that an image [phantasma] is presented to us” (De Anima 428a 1-4).
The naturally abstract spirit of wood sparks the imagination and comes to life at my studio, Phantasma Sculptura or Imagination Carved.
The imagination leads to the mind being liberated and taken on an arc of thought and insight. Without imagination, we are all just bots or digital apps masquerading as human beings.